In California's Prison With the Worst COVID-19 Outbreak, Men Say Their Mental Health Is Suffering

The advocacy group Families United to End Life Without Parole organized a protest at Avenal State Prison on June 6 to demand better living conditions and early releases for medically vulnerable inmates amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Families United to End Life Without Parole)

At first, John Walker wasn’t scared of COVID-19. But that changed in May when the virus infiltrated Avenal State Prison, where he’s been incarcerated for a year.

“I was in the block on Alpha yard that got the COVID first,” he said. “One person came in positive and then it spread around like wildfire.”

Some of the largest COVID-19 clusters in the country are in California’s jails and prisons. At the top of the list is Avenal, located in rural Kings County in the San Joaquin Valley.

Walker eventually became one of the nearly 3,000 incarcerated men  and 300 employees at the prison to contract the virus. Although his case was mild, others were not so fortunate.

Avenal’s incarcerated men say they don’t feel safe. With bunkbeds, social distancing for the prison’s 3,500 current inmates is nearly impossible, and the men must often work as janitors in each other’s living spaces. On top of that, dorm assignments keep changing. Family visits and education programs have been halted indefinitely.

As officials have struggled to contain the outbreak and policies continually shift, those incarcerated have said the prison’s handling of the virus has been chaotic. Walker said that’s not only taking a toll on their safety, but also their mental health.

“This prison has changed their mind dozens of times, and the inmates are victims of it,” Walker said. “They can’t get settled, they can’t relax, the mental health department is filled with cases of people with anxiety and depression over all this crap.”

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Since March, prison administrators have responded to the pandemic with a variety of safety precautions. They have rearranged living spaces and limited intermingling among inmates living in different buildings. Staff and the incarcerated population must wear face coverings, and hand sanitizer dispensers have been hung throughout the facility. Gyms and other facilities have been repurposed to house inmates at various stages of the quarantine process.

Jacob Benitez, incarcerate at Avenal State Prison, said administrators have not been as up-front about the prison’s pandemic response as his inmate-elected Men’s Advisory Council would like. (Courtesy of Lorina Benitez)

Still, Ed Welker, also incarcerated at Avenal, said it’s impossible to keep up with the changes. After he caught the virus, he was moved to different dorms — twice — while suffering from severe fatigue and a persistent migraine. Although he and other residents of his building were moved according to their exposure and testing status, Welker said they were given little notice before moving.

“Everything is kept secret, they’ll come to you and they’ll say ‘Hey, pack your stuff, you’re moving,’” he said. Welker said when he asked why, he was told, “Because Sacramento says you’re moving.”

And the men say officials aren’t sharing enough information about the prison’s plan for managing the outbreak.

Jacob Benitez is an elected member of a Men’s Advisory Council made up of incarcerated representatives from throughout the prison. It’s one of the prison population’s few direct lines of communication with administrators. But since March, he said, meetings have been sporadic.

“This is a big entity that we’re facing, can we at least get some transparency?” he asked.

Many men have said they rely on their loved ones on the outside as their news sources, even when it comes to information from other parts of the prison.

“Wives on all six yards all communicate well with one another,” said Michelle Tran. Her husband Thai Tran is incarcerated at Avenal.

“If something’s going on, somebody will ask a question or send out something on Facebook to where we all can interact with one another,” Tran said. Unlike the Men’s Advisory Council behind bars, an Inmate Family Council — made up mostly of spouses — meets with prison representatives once a week.

Michelle Tran, whose husband Thai Tran is incarcerated at Avenal State Prison, said her network of spouses on the outside often knows more about what’s happening within the prison’s walls than their husbands do. (Courtesy of Michelle Tran)

Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office said that traditionally correctional administrators "don’t do the best job of communicating with the people who are incarcerated there.” Specter is currently involved in a number of lawsuits advocating for better medical and mental health care for those incarcerated in California’s state prisons.

The absence of information about the prison’s handling of the virus, combined with the lack of control people experience in confinement, “creates an incredible amount of anxiety,” Specter said.

The anxiety inmates are feeling can have very real consequences, according to UC Merced psychology professor Jennifer Howell. Her research on the effects of the pandemic in the U.S. and China has revealed high amounts of chronic stress and disrupted sleep, which not only affect eating and exercise, but can also impair immune function, cognition and long-term health. And that’s in communities outside of prison. Howell says the effects are likely much worse for those who are confined.

“That kind of environment, where you have a very fixed schedule, where you’re not necessarily in control over how much space you have from other people, when you’re not necessarily in control of government policies that you are sort of being told what to do, I imagine it’s just exacerbating these effects incredibly,” she said.

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A representative with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) wrote that up-to-date information on the pandemic airs on television channels throughout the state prison system.

“Posters and handouts have also been distributed and put up for display on topics such as social distancing, proper handwashing and COVID-19 warning signs,” an email statement said.

The agency also said that all inmates get mental health check-ins during daily COVID-19 screenings with nurses, and although the prison has paused some group treatment programs, it has increased its use of telehealth services.

“The well-being and safety of the incarcerated population and staff within CDCR ... is our top priority,” the statement read. “We understand how vitally important it is to deliver comprehensive mental health services within our institutions at all times, but especially during these extraordinary times of heightened uncertainty.”

Many men said they’d feel better if only they could visit with their loved ones. Although the prison has discounted a messaging service used by incarcerated people and their loved ones, and offered a few free call days each month, the men at Avenal have had no face-to-face contact with family or friends for months.

Jacob Benitez said not seeing his wife since March is wearing on his marriage.

“Just last night I was talking to my wife and she told me that she forgot my face, she forgot what I look like,” he said. “It does put a strain on your relationship.”

That’s why Benitez said his inmate council is fighting for video visits as one way to alleviate stress.

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